The Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata (ca. 300 BCE – 300 CE) exerts a powerful gravitational pull
on South Asian literature. Retellings of the Mahābhārata fill South Asia’s languages and
literary genres, and each one answers the dark and violent world of the epic in its own way.
But even within this diverse landscape, one response stands out: the Sanskrit
drama Pañcarātra (“Five Nights”). The play imagines a Mahābhārata in which the central
characters of the Sanskrit epic avert the catastrophic war that is the Mahābhārata’s defining
feature and live more or less happily ever after. But surprising as it might be, the Pañcarātra’s
plot is no fantasy. Rather, the play presents the epic in double vision. It cultivates a sense of
construction, or integration, layered over something much more unstable—the story of what
“really” happens in the Mahābhārata.
Nowhere do we have better access to this layered vision than in the way
the Pañcarātra presents the death of Abhimanyu, the young son of one of the epic’s
protagonists. Abhimanyu’s death is so central to the epic that it is difficult to imagine
a Mahābhārata in which Abhimanyu survives. But that is precisely what the Pañcarātraoffers
us. In the play (as in the epic), Abhimanyu fights a battle and loses. But in the play, he
survives. The transformation of the well known story would be shocking if there weren’t a
catch. The Pañcarātra portrays Abhimanyu’s survival in such a way as to suggest, right
alongside it, the story of his death in the Mahābhārata. We might think we’re seeing
Abhimanyu’s life—a projected alternative ending for this beloved figure’s narrative
path—but in the end, what we see is a second death.
Nell Hawley is the Preceptor in Sanskrit, Dept of South Asian Studies, Harvard University. She studies the Mahābhārata and its early iterations in Sanskrit poetry and drama.
For more information, please visit: https://harvard.academia.edu/NellHawley.